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Europe's recession puts Italian women's workplace gains on ice

Although chronically low, the employment rate for women in Italy had been on a gradual upswing in recent decades. But with the recession, that trend stopped.

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When Greta Lauri was in college, she thought that by playing by the rules she could achieve what she considered a normal life: a family and a fulfilling job using her degree in foreign languages.

Then she got married and went through a frustrating job search. She eventually landed a temporary job, but when she had her first child, her contract wasn’t renewed. Later, she was hired as a teacher of Italian as a second language, but the recession hit, and her hours were cut back. When she had her second child, her position wasn’t extended, again leaving her without maternity benefits. Now, in her early 30s, she’s out of work.

Ms. Lauri's story is a familiar one among Italy's working women. Although all Italians have been feeling the effects of Europe's economic crisis, the recession has amplified the structural problems plaguing Italy’s female workers, according to Istat, Italy’s statistics bureau. As a result, not only have recent trends narrowing the traditional gap between female and male employment stopped, but women are increasingly forced into temporary positions and they feel greater, cultural burdens in the home, where they are primary caregivers in the absence of effective government policies to support the family.

Disproportionate economic hardship

Although chronically low, the women’s employment rate had been on a gradual upswing in recent decades, says Paola Profeta, an economics professor at Bocconi University in Milan. But with the recession, that trend stopped.

“In Italy, the crisis has had a stronger impact on women than on men,” says Professor Profeta. “Women suffered more.”

Now, Italy’s female employment rate, at 46 percent, is among the lowest in the European Union – and is even lower in the country's south, where the rate is only 30 percent. In addition, women’s chances of being employed decrease with the number of children they have.

The disparity is particularly evident in the country's industrial sector, where between 2008 and 2009, women lost their jobs at a rate twice as high as male workers, according to Istat.

Fulvia De Brasi was one of those affected. In 2009, she was put into "cassa integrazione,” a wage-subsidy program in which workers receive reduced compensation, when the machinery company where she had worked for 20 years suffered from the crisis.

She now lives on 900 to 950 euros ($1,180 to 1,250) a month, depending on how many hours she’s able to work. She pays a monthly rent of 500 euros ($656).

Ms. De Brasi can get by because she sometimes moonlights as a cleaner for her relatives, she says. “I would have never thought I would have fallen as low as this as a person, from a socioeconomic point of view.”

Poorer quality jobs

According to Istat, the recession also had a negative affect on the quality of the jobs held by women, boosting low-skilled and part-time jobs, as well as increasing women’s underemployment.

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